PREGAME STRETCH: Jacksonville at Pittsburgh

Will Roethlisberger, Steelers offense finally break out with a big game

The game: Jacksonville Jaguars (2-2) vs. Pittsburgh Steelers (3-1), CBS, Sunday, 1 p.m., Heinz Field, 68,400.

Announcers: Kevin Harlan and Rich Gannon. Forget these schmucks again. Let’s talk some more about Tony Romo. If you watched the Oakland-Denver game last week, you might have caught Jim Nantz pulling back the curtain a little bit on how Romo is so prescient in his analysis. It sounds like he’s observing enough practice that he’s picking up the teams’ hand (or visual/card) signals and can infer from there about formations, reads and play calls – which is phenomenal. But, if that is, in fact, the case, we wonder how long until teams either cut off his practice access or ask him to knock it off with the predictions. Also, we bet all the former QB announcers like Gannon have a giant red a#$ for Romo right now, who seems to be exposing them pretty badly for either a) lack of preparation or b) lack of intelligence. Information courtesy www.the506.com

Weather – or not: Partly cloudy, 78. Alright, alright, enough with the heat already. Although, in all seriousness, the nice weather should mean the roots on the Heinz Field turf will stay healthier longer and the field won’t have to be painted green until maybe mid-November this year. Information courtesy www.accuweather.com

Referee: John Parry. John Parry is a good official and the Steelers have traditionally gotten a very fair shake in games he’s worked, but we’re starting to think competence just doesn’t matter anymore in terms of officiating. Overofficousness seems to have taken on a life of its own over the past two seasons. So we’ll note that Parry’s crew is average 14.7 penalties per game for 116 penalty yards, both right at the league averages, but it just doesn’t matter. Information courtesy www.footballzebras.com, www.profootballreference.com and www.nflpenalties.com (it takes three, count ’em, three web sites to provide you with the best each week in officiating background information).

The last time: Rookie quarterback Blake Bortles accounted for only 191 yards passing and two interceptions, the second of which was returned 22 yards for a TD early in the fourth quarter by Brice McCain to cement a 17-9 Steelers victory that kept Jacksonville winless at 0-5. It was the third straight Pittsburgh win in the series, which the Jaguars still lead 12-11-1.

The line: Pittsburgh -8.5/43.5. Smarts say: The oddsmakers and bettors aren’t buying the Jaguars at all with this line staying put all week. The over/under of 43.5 means something like Pittsburgh 26-17. Information courtesy www.pregame.com

When the Steelers have the ball:

PIT offense, 16th passing, 21st rushing, 18th scoring (22.5 ppg), 9th sacks allowed (7)

JAX defense, 1st passing, 32nd rushing, 6th scoring (18.5 ppg), 1st sacks (18)

When the Jaguars have the ball:

JAX offense, 30th passing, 2nd rushing, 5th (27.2 ppg), 1st sacks allowed (3)

PIT defense, 2nd passing, 23rd rushing, 2nd scoring (14.8 ppg), 2nd sacks (15)

So…: Those Jaguars stats are bizare, eh? They’re either at the top or bottom of the league in categories. That’s reflected in their schizophrenic results where they’ve won by blowout (vs. Tom Savage and the Texans), lost by blowout (to Tennessee and Marcus Mariota), won by blowout in London (vs. Joe Flacco and the Ravens) then lost to the lowly Jets (and Josh McCown). Information courtesy www.nfl.com

Key matchups: Jags OC Nathaniel Hackett vs. Steelers DC Keith Butler, first drive

Why: The Jags have scored on their opening drive in all four of their games and that indicates an excellent job of preparation and scripting by Hackett, the son of former Pitt Head Coach Paul Hackett. An opening-drive score Sunday would go a long way toward keeping Blake Bortles comfortable and keeping Jacksonville in the game. Conversely, if the Steelers can snap the early scoring streak, and they have not allowed a score on an opponent’s first drive all season, it could start a breakdown in the confidence of the Jaguars, in general, and Bortles, in particular.

Player on the spot (again): Ben Roethlisberger

Why: Coming off another zero interception/zero excitement game (we’re not counting that officiating debacle an an INT) where he missed a bunch of open throws then decided to publicly chide Antonio Brown for his Gatorade cooler tantrum, Pittsburgh’s quarterback still finds himself smack dab on the spot in terms of the Steelers’ underperforming offense, now that Le’Veon Bell has turned in a vintage Bell game. Normally, facing the league’s No. 1 pass defense wouldn’t be a good matchup for a guy trying to get on track, but we think the Jaguars are vulnerable after seeing a parade of substandard quarterbacking from opponents so far this season.

(Not so) Quick hits:

+ The only thing that Antonio Brown is more committed to than football is narcissism. That’s been the case since he first burst onto the scene with the Steelers five years ago and it’s the case now. In fact, Brown is probably the second most famous narcissist in America. So far in his NFL career, the same narcissism that fueled a legendary work ethic and league-best performance has also resulted in several “look at me” distractions. But it’s always been understood, by his teammates, coaches and fans that the good far outweighs the bad. In that regard, Ben Roethlisberger’s decision to publicly call out Brown this past week for his sideline temper tantrum is worth noting, at least in terms of asking if that scale of good vs. bad is starting to tip slightly. Roethlisberger largely dismissed questions about Brown in the locker room Sunday as “competitiveness,” but by the time he took to the airwaves for his radio show two days later, his mind had changed and he specifically wondered aloud whether Brown’s act was hurting the team and negatively influencing young players. That makes us think something specific happened between Roethlisberger and another teammate between Point A and Point B. Our best guess is that Roethlisberger will have his best game of the year this weekend, Brown will be back over 100 yards receiving and this week’s crisis will be a distant memory by next week. But if you paid attention in your college psychology class, you know that narcissists do not and can not change. So there will be another “AB being AB” moment in the future, maybe later this year. And it will be very interesting to see then whether the Steelers are ready to move toward discipline over tough love.

+ Getting back to penalties: There are some very interesting stats so far this year (in an admittedly small sample size of four games) in regard to how badly penalties hurt a team. We know the Steelers are a highly penalized team (second in the league right now to the 49ers with 37 penalties assessed against them). But that’s only part of the story, right? The other team is getting penalized in those games, too, and what matters, we think, is who gets penalized more. It turns out Steelers opponents are also heavily penalizes. In fact, moreso than Pittsburgh by a small margin, 316 penalty yards vs. 320 penalty yards for opponents, so a +4. So, what teams have been the biggest beneficiaries of officials’ calls? The Arizona Cardinals (+133), Cleveland Browns (+87) and L.A. Chargers (+69, nice). Those teams are a combined 2-10. At the other end of the spectrum, the teams that have been hurt the most by those stinkin’ zebras? The Chiefs (-126), the Lions (-125) and the Rams (-73). The teams are a combined 10-2. Something worth watching, we’ll check back on this in a month or so.

The pick: Some call us a pessimist, but we like to think we’re a realist. In any event, that usually results in us telling you in this space how the Steelers could lose the upcoming game. But not this week! Nope, we think Pittsburgh is due for one of those signature blowout wins that has people instantly talking Super Bowl (Kansas City was the early-season victim last year). Certainly, if Bad Ben shows up Sunday, anything can happen, but we’ve expecting vintage Ben, perhaps four or five TD Ben … Steelers 42-17.

Last week: Despite the Steelers best efforts to allow the Ravens to steal one, much like we predicted, Baltimore was simply worse, which we did not predict. The double loss leaves us at 2-2 straight up and 3-1 against the spread.

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